Tuesday, March 11, 2008


It's not that I find the theory proposed in this Orlando Patterson op-ed unimaginable -- it's just that, if it were true, I think the evidence would be considerably clearer:

ON first watching Hillary Clinton's recent "It's 3 a.m." advertisement, I was left with an uneasy feeling that something was not quite right -- something that went beyond my disappointment that she had decided to go negative. Repeated watching of the ad on YouTube increased my unease. I realized that I had only too often in my study of America's racial history seen images much like these, and the sentiments to which they allude.

... when I saw the Clinton ad's central image -- innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger -- it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn't help but think of D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad -- as I see it -- is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father -- or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black -- both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino....

Well, that's just it -- this isn't the Jesse Helms "Hands" ad, in which the rejected job seeker is unambiguously white. Watch the ad -- there are five separate shots of children, and in two of them it's clear that we're looking at a dark-complected, dark-haired child, quite possibly Hispanic. Then we see the mother, and she could be Hispanic as well. All this on behalf of a candidate who (a) likes to target voting blocs and (b) runs well with Hispanics and women.

Even if you're looking to tap into Hispanic mistrust of blacks as well as white mistrust of blacks, can you do so with one set of images? Can you make whites think a black man is "the other" without reminding Hispanics that whites often see them as "the other"? (Or are Hispanics supposed to regard white bigots as "the other"?) And can you pull all this off in an ad that runs a mere thirty seconds and lacks any literal or symbolic tip-off of the specific nature of the object of fear?

And this argument seems flawed:

It is significant that the Clinton campaign used its telephone ad in Texas, where a Fox poll conducted Feb. 26 to 28 showed that whites favored Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent, and not in Ohio, where she held a comfortable 16-point lead among whites.

But if this ad is a dog whistle to whites, why run it in a state where whites are only 48% percent of the primary electorate and not in a state where whites are (see page 3) more than two thirds of the primary electorate? Because Hillary was already ahead in Ohio? Doesn't she need huge blowout wins to stay in the race?

No, this ad was not American democracy's finest hour. But I'm skeptical of Patterson's theory.

(My theory? Well, has Hillary Clinton ever deliberately released an image in which she looks as old as she does in the last shot of the ad? I think that's the point -- to stress her age. This ad is about youth, not race.)


There's disagreement about this ad at The New Republic's Plank blog -- Jason Zengerle agrees with Patterson, Christopher Orr is on the fence, and Michelle Cottle just rolls her eyes.

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